Since traveling abroad is still out of the question, I might as well explore more of Hong Kong where I live. I’m ashamed to say that even though I’ve been all over the world to 100 countries, I actually haven’t seen that much of my own home town. The last time I visited Tai O (大澳) must have been over 30 years ago and I really don’t remember much from that outing. Tai O is an old Tanka fishing village located on a small island off the western side of Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Tai O used to be linked to the Lantau mainland by a hand-pulled punt that has been replaced by a footbridge. Because of its proximity to the Pearl River Delta, it used to be a major trading hub during the Qing Dynasty and was once used as the base for many smuggling operations from guns and drugs to people in and out of mainland China. Tai O is known for its stilt houses and often known as the ‘Venice of Hong Kong’. Though most of these stilt houses are quite dilapidated, they are still a very beautiful sight. It is a wonderful place to escape the busy city, wander around in the alleyways, sample the local products and snacks, and just experience for a brief moment how simple life can be.
There are a few ways to get to Tai O. Most people do a combination of metro, ferry, bus, and taxi. You can catch the ferry from Pier 6 in Central to Mui Wo, then take a bus or taxi to Tai O. Alternatively, you can take the metro to Tung Chung station, then take bus 11 from Tung Chung Town Center to Tai O. I took the metro to Tung Chung and then did a 40-minute taxi ride to Tai O. You can also hire a private car that has a special license to enter Tai O to make the day trip hassle-free and more enjoyable. Do try to visit on a weekday as it gets quite busy on the weekends.
Tai Chung bridge, which replaced the hand-pulled punt, is a great vantage point for admiring the stilt houses built on tidal flats on the sides of the waterway. There is a small pier next to this bridge with boats offering a 20-minute ride around the stilt houses and then out to the nearby sea to search for pink dolphins. However, spotting the pink dolphins is quite rare given the noise from the boats and all the sea traffic. Sun Ki Bridge, at the other end of the waterway, is another good place to view the stilt houses. These traditional stilt houses were the predominant kind of houses in old Southern Chinese fishing villages mainly to protect the houses against floods. The ethnic Tanka fishing community created these houses called Pang Uk (棚屋) over 200 years ago originally crafted with pine bark and bamboo and looked like a boat. Now most of the houses are made with a combination of concrete and metal sheets.
Tai O is famous for its shrimp paste as well as other dried fish and seafood. Tai O had an abundance of krill or locally called silver shrimp hence giving rise to this local industry. However, trawling for krill has been made illegal in Hong Kong waters since 2013 so fishermen now have to travel farther out for krill. Shrimp paste is made from ground silver shrimp mixed with salt and left to ferment for a few days after which it is spread out on bamboo trays to dry in the sun. The amount of salt used depends on the weather conditions. Shrimp paste is commonly used in Cantonese and Southeast Asian cooking for stir-frying together with rice or vegetables or steaming with pork. In the 1960s there were about 10 shrimp paste factories here but now only 2 remain. The family-run Cheng Cheung Hing (鄭祥興) shrimp paste factory has been in operation for close to a century. Without youngsters willing to join the industry, this local delicacy may soon be a lost art.
There are quite a few historic buildings in Tai O. One such Grade II historic building is the Kwan Tai Temple which was built during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. The temple is dedicated to Kwan Tai who was a general of the Three Kingdoms era and also known as the God of War. He is the symbol of loyalty and valiance and is worshipped not just by fishermen but also by merchants as well as both gangsters and policemen. Along the roof are beautiful ceramic figurines from Shiwan near Guangzhou. Attached to Kwan Tai Temple on Kat Hing Street is a small Tin Hau Temple. The temple is dedicated to Tin Hau who is the Goddess of the Sea and the protector of fishermen and dates back to the 18th century.
Another historic temple here in Tai O is Hung Shing Temple dedicated to Hung Shing who is said to be a Tang Dynasty court official who established a weather observatory. It was built in 1746 by the villagers to protect the village.
Another old building worth checking out is the old Tai O marine police station located next to the Tai O ferry pier. It has been converted into the charming 9-room Tai O Heritage Hotel that has been operating since 2012. The police station was built in 1902 mainly to combat piracy and smuggling in the area and is now a Grade II historic building. Restoration of the building by the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation began in 2009 and received the UNESCO Award of Merit for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2013.
Dotted all over Tai O are shops selling local dried fish and seafood as well as local snacks such as chinese donuts, giant fishballs, etc. The 30-year old Tai O Bakery on Kat Hing Street is said to serve the best chinese sugary donuts in Hong Kong. There are often long queues outside its doors. It also sells other local chinese baked goods such as egg tarts, palmiers, etc. Tai O Snack specialises in Chinese crepes called Jianbing. These chinese pancakes are filled with a variety of savory ingredients such as egg, pickled radish, dried shrimps, sesame, fresh scallions, etc. They are also famous for their deep fried radish balls with dry shrimps, peanuts, and minced pork fillings. Cheung Choi Kee is famous for its “husband” rolls which contain a mixture of its very own shrimp paste, stir-fried minced pork and shredded lettuce all rolled in a roti.
Having already been through a year of covid lockdown, I have started to appreciate the simpler things in life. I am reminded of what Frank Lloyd Wright said, “As we live and as we are, Simplicity — with a capital “S” — is difficult to comprehend nowadays. We are no longer truly simple. We no longer live in simple terms or places. Life is a complex struggle now. It is now valiant to be simple: a courageous thing to even want to be simple. It is a spiritual thing to comprehend what simplicity means.” Many of my friends ask me how I am coping with being grounded for over a year now. Strangely enough I am quite okay with it. I’m grateful for the imposed pause which gave me the opportunity to spend more time with loved ones, to learn some new things, and to just slow down and rest instead of running around chasing after that next big adventure. We humans are a strange lot. We think we must have this or must do that but in the end we are very adaptable and there is really some truth in the saying that it takes 21 days (maybe more like a few months) to form a new habit or at least get used to something.
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